Posts Tagged 'Transit'



A Surf Board, A Cigarette and An Invitation to South Africa: Another Strange Exchange With Italian Men

Someone else's surf board, packed up...

Only 2 hours left to kill at the Fiumicino airport, where I’ve been sitting since 10am, waiting for my flight to Cairo—expensive Wifi day pass and four shots of espresso, getting my panini fix on.

They say you can’t tell anything about a place by its airport, but I say fuck that—two weeks in Albania, and the Rome airport feels exciting! diverse! worldly! Overweight American tourists! The Moldovan soccer team! A family of African royalty! I realize I haven’t seen any black people in two weeks, and only 1.5 Asians. I’ve barely seen any real denim or leather for that matter, and all the luxurious curly manes and hip lil mohawks make me giggle.

So I walk around making my mental list of goodbyes to the Western world: goodbye hipsters, goodbye tailored suits, goodbye potable tap water, goodbye cute boy across the cafe I keep making eyes at but am too chicken-shit realistic chicken-shit to talk to.

Heave my way through check-in, 18 kilos lighter and I step outside for a bit of fresh air cigarette. Dude’s standing there, big ole bag and a surfboard. Taking a picture with his iPhone. Smile and make the universal hand gesture for—“You want me to take a picture of you?”

He smiles back. “No, no, I just take a picture for my friend.” Smiles again. “Where you are from?”

California, which he approves of, because of the good waves, big waves. Yes, but cold, I say. Cold in Italy too. Where am I going? Cairo for a few days. And then? South Africa?

“No, close.” I smile, laugh. “Well, not close at all. Cambodia.”

“Cambodia?”

“Near Thailand.”

Blank look and a quick geography lesson, and the light flashes in his eyes. “Ah, Cambogia!” Scrutinizing squint: “But you are alone?” I nod. “No family, no boyfriend—“there, he said it—“Why?”

I shrug, laugh: “Who’s gonna come to Cambodia with me?”

“Me!”

And I laugh harder. “Oh yeah?”

“Yes, but first, South Africa.” He goes there twice a year, can’t stand the cold of an Italian winter—he’ll go for a month, come back for Christmas, head down there again. He’ll surf and live on the beach and I’m sure, I can tell by the lines in his face, not wear sunscreen.

“You like, you can come,” he suggests. I laugh again. I think he likes it.

Where have I been in Italy? Did I like it? Why didn’t I go to the Amalfi Coast—that’s where he’s from, he could have shown me around.

“I didn’t know you,” I smile, reminding him of the obvious.

He nods at the gray day, misting and cool. He hates the cold. I nod at the surfboard, “I can tell.”

Sleep-deprivation hunger blur gives a kick and I need one more espresso—just one more espresso—before the flight. That and he’s right—it’s cold, and what at first felt good now just feels… cold.

So I nod, say some kind of noncommittal goodbye, go to turn away. “Wait!” he calls out.

He opens his wallet, pulls out a card. “I am Lucio,” points to the name on the card, “That’s me. Next time you come to Italy, we go to Amalfi Coast, I show you my town, you meet my family.”

I smile, nod, put the card in my back pocket. “All right Lucio. I’ll be seeing you.”

Cause we all can dream, right?

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Notes on Flying Into Albania

At the Bergamo airport outside Milan, and I’m in Albania before I’m in Albania.

Waiting at the gate, last flight of the night and it’s delayed—“ritardo,” which sounds like “retarded” and I laugh and take a picture, and get those sideways glances—“Girl, you’re not from here.”

And I’m not—one of the only people at the gate that isn’t Albanian, clutching a red passport and the clothing suddenly different, so un-Milan, where even the dogs are better groomed that me. At Gate 3, it’s faded loose blazers instead of crisp fitted ones; it’s cheap haircuts and scarves tied over the heads of old women. It’s scuffed low heels and calf-length skirts, thin linen—it’s hard faces, jaws and brows more pronounced, and skin chiseled too, even in the children—chiseled, as though the expressions were carved out of some kind of different living, different reality, and you could never quite assimilate, could you? I think—No.

I’m wrecked tired, stayed up till 5am with the Le Fooding kids, slept maybe 4 broken hours, and I’ve got a bottle of Pelegrino and my headphones cranked up, tapping my foot through a caffeine haze just to stay awake. Glances snag on me—not Italian, not Albanian, what the fuck?

An hour after we’re supposed to leave, and a shuttle bus pulls up to the gate. People push and jostle; a man tears our boarding passes, which look like they were created in MS Word, printed on Xerox paper, glossy-thin. The bus smells like wet and feet, and it lets us off at the stairs to the plane, which bears no markers, no logos, a surface so lumpy it looks like paper-mache. We scurry in through the cool Italian night, breath clouds and blinking lights.

They’ve got the first ten rows blocked off—I remember this from my last Belle Air flight—and I can’t really discern why. People push and prod, they yell instructions to each other over, motion over the heads, and I can’t discern that either. There’s an old woman in my seat, and the seat next to her, and I show her my ticket and she shakes her scarved head as if to say, “No.”

I shrug and the stewardess—dolled up like a retro Pan Am attendant, hair pinned and orange hat tucked jauntily to the side—she shrugs and motions me up to the front of the plane, to the unassigned rows, and I grab an extra seat.

A staticy safety announcement rushed through in 3 languages—sounds like the voice in a fast-food drive-thru—and it’s too quiet for me to hear anyway over the mechanical groans of the plane. There’s nothing identifiably “Belle Air” about the plane, save the cloths on the head rests, and I decide it must be some kind of generic rent-a-plane, which doesn’t make me feel terribly confident, but I close my eyes and wait for take-off—though really, in a lot of ways, all these ways, I’ve already taken off.

We take off, and I watch the lights of Milan dissipate, fade—goodbye Western world. We’re cruising at news-helicopter altitude, it seems, and I feel like I could reach out and touch the little lights, the clouds that snag on the wings and eventually swallow everything, everything.

The cabin lights keep dimming and brightening, like a kid playing with a switch. Outside, the sky crackles a yellow flash, illuminating the shapes of those clouds, and I imagine the static clinging to us like clothes from a dryer, or when a silent electricity is in the air and you don’t know it until you touch something and get that little shock—in the black above the Adriatic, but we’re already in Albania, a rattly, groany little generic bullet of Albania, carrying Albania through the sky.

Lights appear and we start to sink. The scarved woman in my seat stands up—she opens the overhead bin literally as we’re landing, the first bump and rumble, and others follow suit as we taxi, and the stewardesses stare ahead, bored-looking and don’t bother to point out the seat-belt sign or tell us to sit.

Another flight of stairs, another stinky shuttle bus, and a mad rush to the immigration desk. It’s a quarter-size line at the “Foreigner” counter, though I could have sworn I was the only non-Albanian, and a man elbows me to get there first, waves his wife over, and it seems like a monumental rush for nothing, so I just let out a half-laugh and watch.

A faded dim stamp I can barely read, slammed on top of another stamp, and I wonder what the point of it is. Three luggage carousels that all read flights from earlier that day. My backpack finally appears, on its side amid the luggage mummified in neon shrink-wrap.

No buses at midnight, so I grab a taxi, and he drives between the lanes, over the lanes, flashing his high beams like lightning or static or the cabin lights that could never sit still. We cruise into Tirana, and I see familiar sights—the crepe stand I liked, the gaudy shopping mall, the dug-up square beside the national museum, the statue that sits amid the construction like a warrior in a dead battlefield, the broad empty road where the futbol crowds shot off smoke bombs.

It’s like a boy I’d met once, thought I’d really liked and kept on thinking about, retelling the story to myself so that eventually I didn’t know if it were true or not anymore, if I’d made it up or not—but I’m back and it’s still all there and it’s real and I can’t help but smile at that—Tirana, Tirana, sleeping and dark but still as I left it.

The taxi stops at the gate to the hostel and the driver helps me with my bags and I pay him and then he pauses and looks at me, nods and smiles, reaches out to shake my hand—maybe because I’m American and he knows that’s what we do, I’m not sure why. But he shakes my hand and I shake his and he pats me on the back and I ring the bell and now I’m in Albania, really in Albania—I’ve arrived.

Rome, Like a Cannon Shot (Bella, You Must Be New At This)

I come into Rome like something shot out of a cannon—hair blown and thirsty, sweating in the thick denim and long layers I had to wear cause they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

It started with the fact that my flight was 2 hours delayed. Which really started with the fact that I’d gotten about 7 hours of sleep in the 2 days prior; that I’d stood on a rush-hour E train all the way to the airport, all 60 fucking pounds of luggage draped around me so that my right fingers went numb holding on to the metal railing; with the fact that I actually nodded out a little bit at the terminal, all the eager/antsy middle-aged tourists in their neck pillows and compress socks buzzing around in anticipation of when the plane would actually arrive.

Couldn’t really sleep on the red-eye, which is rare for me—it was more freezing-cold than usual and since I’ve decided to bring half my closet with me, I didn’t have room for an extra blanket, which you really only need on flights and trains and buses anyway. But when you need it, fuck, you need it.

So I land with, what now?, 12 hours of sleep in a 3 day period? Doesn’t really matter anymore. Part of the trick of not ever really getting jetlag is that flying makes me so wonky, I’m out of it anyway, so I can rally and stay up for hours, or I can crash immediately. Or I can blaze bleary-eyed through a gleaming-stone ancient city and make all those novice traveler mistakes I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Get waved through immigration with barely a glance at my passport. This happens to me sometimes, when entering the EU, which is supposed to be all tripped out on the xenophobia tip, but I guess that only applies if you’re not white American. There isn’t even a long line—homeboy just glances at my picture (which doesn’t even look like me anymore, people tell me), his fingers barely grazing it, before pushing it back through the window, flicking his wrist and dismissing me. So, okay, that means I can stay forever, right?

But I’ve done this trek from Fiumicino to Termini enough times that I could kinda switch into automatic mode: the escalator down and the escalator up; the kiosk you don’t buy the train ticket at; the kiosk you do; the counter you get espresso at (not cause you need it, just to kill the time and get your heart racing more than it already is); the place where you validate your ticket; the number of machines you have to try before you find one that actually validates the ticket (usually 3); waiting waaaaay down the platform so that you’re away from the herd and can actually get a seat; how when you get to Termini you have to walk for like a mile down this loooong platform, how the station looks like a mirage in a desert down there, how when you finally reach it it isn’t an oasis at all but swarmed with rolling luggage and hustlers and pay phones that don’t work. Welcome to Rome, motherfucker.

I’m looking for the Laziali Tram—my fourth time in Rome and I’ve finally decided to fuck hostels near Termini, not even worth it. I did some research and found an affordable B&B outside of center, near Pigneto, which is where I want to stay anyway. So I walk down to the streetcars, which all look vintage and chic and rattly, like an old train model—I see the 5 and 14, which I suddenly remember are the trams that take you to Pigneto—where the hell that knowledge lay tucked in the bleary recesses of my brain, I don’t know.

But neither of them say “Laziali,” so shit, gotta keep looking. So I ask the dude sitting on the bench next to me, so I ask the tram driver, so I decide fuck it and try to go find a payphone to call dude at the B&B and ask him for better directions than the ones I scribbled for myself while waiting at the airport terminal. Phone steals 3 Euros and yells a series of tones in my ear—no luck. A cab maybe? They all look dicey.

Which is when I note to myself that I feel lighter, less encumbered. Which is when I notice that one of my bags is not with me—the one with my new laptop and my thyroid medication and fuck you, my makeup and cheap jewelry—important shit.

Ugh—that sudden razor of fear that cuts through your gut, laser of panic and you feel it radiate, shock you into focus. Dash back to the payphones—not there. Remember, as I lumber across the street as fast as I can, that I haven’t bought travel insurance yet—why?

But miracles of fucking miracles, my stuffed messenger bag is still sitting on the tram stop bench. The dude I asked for directions smiles sadly and shakes his head, as if to say: “Bella, you must be new at this.”

I gush a million thank yous, he tells me how lucky I am, especially in Rome, and I say, “Hell, in anywhere,” and I feel like a tired dog that’s gotten kicked in the ribs, like an old TV, shocked out of my static—I feel alive again.

“I watch your bag for you,” a squat man with an Indian/British accents tells me. “I ask everyone, ‘Is this your bag?'” Shakes his head. I gush a few more thank yous in his direction.

He asks me where I’m going, and he shakes his head again and points over to a bus parked across the street. “I’m going there too, come with me,” and shit, it’s not like I’m not gonna go with him—he coulda swiped all my stuff and he didn’t, so he can’t be half bad.

He walks with his chest kind of puffed out, has a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves tied sloppily or jauntily, I can’t decide—maybe both. He like to play the big shot, I can tell, I’m the man that knows this place, and it strikes me as a kind of pauper’s authority—but he’s obviously got a good heart beneath it.

He seems pleased that I know how to validate my ticket when I get on the bus (cause actually, I’m not new at this, I’m just a wreck). He asks me what country I’m from, tells me about his brother in Boston, how he wants to go to Boston—the usual immigrant conversation. He asks me if it’s my first time in Rome and I sigh and shake my head, “No, but you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

I leave myself at his mercy, cause why not? My brain is bleary as fuck and I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept and he seems to take a kind of pleasure in leading me, in asking every Indian street peddler when we get off the bus where Via Capua is (even though I kinda know where it is), and I wait until the sign is right in front of us to point and say, “Look!”

And he walks me to the door of the B&B, which is locked because I’m about 3 hours later than I thought I’d be, and dude offers to wait with me, but I tell him “No, it’s cool.” And I thank him again and shake his hand and he wants to write me if he ever goes to the US, and I tell him I’m not going back for a long time. And he nods and gives me a different look—maybe he’s decided that I’m not new at this, I don’t know—and then he waves and walks back down the street, that puffed up chest leading the way.

Train

Struck me as though
we were all just trying
to hold it together—
our whole lives
accumulated
into pinched expressions,
hands on the knees,
the bit of hair
dented from sleep.

Fumbling for the phone
as it buzzes
in pockets
we can’t reach,
the bowels of purse
we carry like a cave
under ourselves—
“I don’t know what half this shit is anymore”
we’ll say with a half-laugh

as the semis circle
and the train bullets on.

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.

Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”

Picturesque breakdown

Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.

Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.

I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”

With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.

A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.

They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.

We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.

This is how we roll/paddle

Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.

As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.

On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.

It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.

An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

For the last 100km, managed to score a seat in the back. Catch: I had to climb over the piles of luggage to get there.

That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.

Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.

“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”

They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.

We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

Bananas and Plastic Bows: Sawng Thaew to Kong Lo Cave

Goat on the roof. Friendly driver.

Salt-and-pepper hair beneath a worn military cap, high cheekbones and pursed lips. He squeezes the bananas I’m clutching through their plastic bag, says something in Lao.

I smile, shake my head. He repeats; I repeat. He nods.

I can’t tell if he approves of the bananas or not.

When I climbed on the sawng thaew in Ban Na Hin, the old man slid over, made room for me between the empty gasoline barrels and bags of cabbage. We rumbled around the market. Old women climbed on with pink bags, still-alive fish flopping inside, while the driver kept climbing on the roof, adding to the goods secured atop: sacks of rice, a goat and my dusty red backpack.

The old man nudged me. “Kong Lo?” I nodded. He nodded. But where else would I have been going?

We headed out down the two-lane highway, lined with construction lots and signs for a Ford Motors Center. The main industry in Ban Na Hin isn’t tourism—as evidenced by the single-room tourism office surrounded by grass-chewing cows—but the nearby hydro-electric plant. The handful of guesthouses that run the length of the town’s main road are an afterthought, and the English spoken is minimal.

Despite this, Ban Na Hin is still the closest town to the Kon Lo Cave, a 7.5km limestone tunnel that’s purported to be creepy as shit and mildly reminiscent of the Greek underworld. But, 40-some winding kilometers from a main highway and serviced only by local buses and sawng thaew (pick-up trucks with two benches in the truckbed), what would be a top tourist attraction in any other country remains fairly off-the-beaten-path in Laos. Which, as much as the cave itself, is what lured me out here—after Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I was tourism-weary and in the mood for adventure.

So I don’t mind as it takes two hours to go the 45km to Kon Lo. Past rock that jutted from the earth like jagged teeth, past slash-and-burn fields were the land looked as though it were gasping—we stop at every village, delivering groceries, dropping off canisters of gasoline. I watch the landscape, the farms, the clouds that ito the rock like scraps of cloth that had been ripped off. And I people-watch.

And now, slyly, I study the old man beside me. He has soft yellow skin the texture of crushed silk. I notice on his sleeve, he has small plastic bows haphazardly safety-pinned on. Beside his army-green cap, I imagine them as military decorations, badges from a make-believe army. I imagine them as gifts from grandchildren, secured to his shirt and forgotten about.

I pull out my notebook, to jot down the image between the bumps that stutter my handwriting across the page. He leans over, looks at the notebook, watches me write. He nods as though he understands.

I can’t tell if he approves or not.

I smile, point to the plastic bow on his sleeve. He laughs. I give a thumbs-up.

He tugs his sleeve, begins to unfasten one of the pins. He takes my sleeve, pins the bow. I touch it, smile. He laughs. I laugh.

(A little later on the ride, I discover what the bows are: a bunch of teenagers lining the road come up to the sawng thaew and, through the poles, pin bows to our shirts. They smile and sing, holding out a collection for something.)

The sawng thaew thins of its passengers and produce as we rumble along. A tank of a woman with a soft, laughing face pushes her way out, waves at me. We stretch our legs in the luxurious space.

The old man waves his arm at the driver, stands to a hunch beneath the truck bed’s dome. I tap him as he begins to shuffle off.

I open my plastic bag and hand him a banana.

He smiles. I laugh, he laughs.

I think he approves.

He steps off the back of the truck, place his hands together and bows his head. I repeat.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Kong Lo Cave

While researching Kong Lo Cave, the number one concern I encountered was over transport. The LP doesn’t have much info and it seems as though the lack of direct buses deters a lot of people from visiting.

Here’s the deal: Kong Lo and the nearby Ban Na Hin (nearest town, with guesthouses and an ATM) lie along Highway 8, which moves east from Highway 13. All buses between Vientiane/Paksan and Tha Khaek/Savanaket run down Highway 13, so the route you will often read recommended is to take one of these buses running along the 13, ask to get off at the junction, then take a sawng thaew to Ban Na Hin, where you can then take another sawng thaew to Kon Lo Cave or the nearby town, Ban Kong Lo, where it’s possible to homestay.

Another friendly fellow

I think it’s the transfers that deter people. It;s actually a lot less dodgy than it sounds. There’s enough of a trickle of backpackers that the bus drivers know where you’re headed—there’s not much else out here for tourists. Sawng thaew run from the junction to Ban Na Hin every 30-or-so minutes during the daytime, and there are supposedly a few direct sawng thaew to Ban Kong Lo every day, though it probably wouldn’t be worth waiting for those.

From Vientiane, there’s only one VIP bus to Tha Khaek a day at an inconvenient 1pm—journey takes about 6-7 hours, so you’d potentially be looking at doing the transfer after dark. Local buses, though, run every half hour beginning at 6am. They cost 60,000 kip, regardless of whether you get off at the junction or the final destination.

There’s also local buses to Lak Soa, the biggest town along Highway 8. The advantage of this bus is that you negate the feared transfer at the junction. These buses leave Vientiane every 2 hours, beginning also at 6am, and cost 75,000. This is the bus I took, and I recommend it: it was early enough in the day that the lack of AC was bearable, and even with a break-down, I still arrive in Ban Na Hin at 1pm.

I’ve also been told that there’s one daily bus directly from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo that leaves between 9-10am. However, if there’s not enough people, the bus will be canceled, so it’s probably best not to risk it.

From Ban Na Hin, though, there’s only three official sawng thaew per day to Kong Lo—more evidence of the undeveloped tourist facilities. The first leaves the town bus station at 10-ish, the others at 1 and 3-ish. But in reality, they seem to leave more often than that. Otherwise, you’re looking at arranging private transport, about 100,000 kip versus the 25,000 for the bus.

Coming from the South, it appears as though your best bets would be to take a sawng thaew from Tha Khaek, which is well-connected to Savannakhet and Pakse, or one of the buses coming up the 13 and doing the transfer. I did meet some grumpy Brits who had gotten on the wrong bus and had the journey take a day and a half—”All this for a bloody cave.”

Which brings me to my biggest recommendation: treat the whole thing as journey-is-the-destination adventure. Don’t focus on just Getting To The Cave—everyone I met who did this seemed fairly annoyed, or at least had to qualify it with “worth the trek.” I was armed with snacks and in the mindset of “well, let’s see where this leads,” and I had a grand ole’ time.

Border Crossing: Searching the Landscape for Clues

I’m staring through a bus window, scanning for clues.

A month in Phnom Penh and I’m finally leaving the city. I need a new visa, and I was planning to come to the Thai border anyway, to search for the remains of a refugee camp—as though the land could hold stories, or bits of stories; as though it could tell them and I’d be able to hear it.

I look out at the rumbly pavement, the lumbering trucks, the dusty shoulder and the green, green beyond. I don’t see any traces. I see thatched roofs and hammocks between the trees; I see bone-white cows laying in the dirt and houses perched on stilts like skinny legs. I see roadside petrol stands and carts of rubble with young boys sitting atop the heap, staring back through the window at me. I see palms reflected in still water.

Where did the people walk? Somewhere, once, there were paths, and this land saw it, was it. I’m along the Southeast of Cambodia, heading into the Thailand’s Trat Province. It wasn’t one of the main avenues for escape to Thailand—those were in the north—but enough people came this way for there to have been two refugee camps, from what I’ve been able to learn. And I see no traces of their journey.

How quickly, I think, the land swallows human traces. I think of the images of saw I Phnom Penh after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a little less than four years after having been evacuated: it was rubble, crumble, weeds growing tall and stoplights swinging silent. It was surprising how quickly the earth could undo things.

I think of the accounts of refugees I’ve read. The danger was immense, especially for people already physically weakened by years of starvation and overwork. I think of Vietnamese soldiers, fake Khmer Rouge soldiers, Thai bandits, sleeping landmines—all that people risked to walk through this place that I’m gliding through, plexiglass and air-conditioning. And isn’t that the truth of it?—all I can know of it the warp in the window, the transparent reflection of my own face obscuring the landscape that once held answers, that maybe still does, maybe has its own recurrent dreams, of footsteps marching.

I think this as we climb through the Cardamom Mountains, bus heavy and wheezing. We arrive at the Thai border, our gaggle of Westerners clucking at the Immigration window. (Isn’t this the truth of it?) I buy a coffee; we pile into a different mini-bus and move away from Cambodia and deeper into Thailand.

And it’s different, very different, in a way that surprises me. Borders are usually blurry to me, cultures overlapping like a Venn Diagram. But this one, the contrasts seems stark.

It’s not just that everyone’s driving on the British side of the road, not just that the cars are all newer and shinier. The green is greener in Thailand, I think. There’s no trash on the sides of the road. The electrical wires extend in an orderly fashion, don’t tangle like dreadlocks. There’s more road signs, and they’re crisper, brighter, perkier.

After a month in Cambodia’s capital and five hours chugging through its countryside, Thailand strikes me as wealthy, lavishly wealthy—but something else too. Calm? Peaceful? Something emanates through the lushness, which seems unexplainably lusher than Cambodia. It reminds me of rich kid’s skin, how it seems to glow—how when I was young I learned to spot rich kids by their skin, and I remembering asking my Dad once, “Why do rich kids’ skin glow like that?” and he said, “Access to good health care.” And that made sense, logically, but still didn’t explain all of the glow, or why me and my friends didn’t have it.

And to me, Thailand glows in that way—gleams, even. I stare out at it, the ease and grace it permeates. I want to call it an innocence, but I don’t think it’s that. It’s a stability, I think, perhaps the result of having not been at war, wars. Is this the landscape of peace, of a place that’s managed to never be under the hold of imperialism, that’s maintained a precious degree (or illusion, depending on who you ask) of neutrality?

In comparison to Thailand, I begin to wonder if Cambodia’s landscape does bear wounds, bear a kind of witness—dulled and muted and hard to notice once your eyes have become adjusted to it, like a silhouette of mountains against the night’s sky. Will I be able to see it better when I cross back, the other direction?—what I have easily, automatically normalized.

I stare out the window, searching.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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